Sunday, September 28, 2008

March 2007

As elementary as it sounds, the idea that two people can react so differently to the same work of art has long fascinated me. How one person can watch a movie and deem it a masterpiece while another of equal film smarts and viewing experience sees it as a total wreck? Nothing is more deflating than reading a critic you admire ripping to shreds one of your favorites. What did he miss or what did you overlook?

Re-watching classics can be hazardous in the same way. Last year, a longtime friend and careful reader of this posting, responded to my suggestion that he watch John Ford’s influential Western, “The Searchers,” a movie that is repeatedly named as seminal in the education of current filmmakers. It’s generally regarded as Ford’s masterpiece, John Wayne’s best performance and one of the finest films about the American West. My friend was less impressed than the critics and filmmakers have been over the past 50 years. “What a stinker. The plot has holes 70mm wide, and character motivations seem to be whatever is needed to make the story work out.” He detailed more specific problems he had with the film and I knew I had to revisit “The Searchers.”

I, too, had been less than enthusiastic the first two times I watched Ford’s film. But by my third viewing I was on-board with the critical majority and ranked it among the greatest American films. That was probably 15 years ago. This latest viewing turned out to be a mixed bag. (And for those who have never seen it, you might want to stop reading, because all will be revealed.)

Right from the start, it’s easy to see what film historians respond to. Ford, better than anyone who’s ever directed a film, knows exactly the right position for his camera. When Ethan Edward’s sister-in-law first spots him riding toward the family home he’s just a speck on the horizon. But slowly the rest of the family---Ethan’s brother and the couple’s three children---gathers on the front porch as they recognize the man who has been gone for six years. It’s a touching, bittersweet scene that resonates even though you know nothing of these characters.

And before you do get to know them, most of the family is killed or kidnapped by a rampaging war party of Comanche Indians. Wayne’s Ethan and the family’s adopted son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who were away from the ranch with a band of local Rangers investigating the killing of livestock, return to find the wife, husband and young son murdered and the two girls gone.

Ethan, already filled with anger from his years as a Confederate soldier and without a real place in the world, immediately becomes determined to track down the Comanches and save the girls. At first, he’s part of a group of local volunteers, led by the area’s preacher/lawman Rev. Clayton (robustly played by Ford stalwart Ward Bond) but after being attacked by another group of Indians, only Ethan, Martin and the older girl’s fiancĂ©e Brad (Harry Carey Jr., another Ford regular) continue the pursuit.

As much as “The Searchers” is about an obsessive rescue mission and Ethan’s unrelenting hatred of the Native Americans, the movie’s unspoken theme is about the eternal magnificence of the land and nature and how it towers over the problems of one man or one family or one nation. Ford’s beloved Monument Valley never looked better as cinematographer Winston C. Hoch’s Vista Vision color captures the area’s stunning shades of brown and yellow and red as it provides the background for the men’s journey.

About halfway through the film, Ethan has to tell Martin and Brad that he found and buried the dead body of Lucy while he was scouting an area ahead of the others. It’s one of the Duke’s finest moments on film, displaying both his heartbreak and the tough soldier mentality that keeps him going. Brad, overcome with grief and hate, rides directly into the Indian camp and his death. Later, as snow begins to fall making the search impossible, Ethan tells Martin, “We’ll find them in the end…as sure as the turning of the earth.”

To that point, I found “The Searchers” virtually flawless. There’s a scene where it’s unclear why the Indians don’t pursue the group across a shallow river and it’s somewhat mystifying what clues the men are following to track the younger girl, but those are minor points compared to the story’s brutally honest look at life in the West and its uncompromising study of hatred---the way it twists one’s morality and can turn a man into something less than human.

Then, this austere, dream-like picture takes on water and gets bogged down in comic sentimentality of family life, the worst of Ford’s trademarks. Ethan and Martin’s return to their old neighbor’s homestead for a few days and that rekindles the romance between the family’s daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) and Martin. From that point, the film changes direction, with the emphasis no longer being Ethan’s hatred, but on the future prospects for Laurie and the comic aspects of Martin unwanted marriage to a plump Indian girl. (The Indians in the film are either savage murderers or fools.) Before the end, Ford manages to find a way to stage both a wedding dance and a humorous brawl for the hand of Laurie.

After 40 minutes of this drivel, the film gets back to the business of finding long lost little Debbie, who, when discovered is one of the wives of the vicious Comanche warrior Scar, and has turned into a gorgeous teenager (Natalie Wood). At this point in the search, Ethan has determined he must kill Debbie because she’s been defiled by the heathen Indian, which means Martin must save her from both the Indians and Ethan.

The ending is full of contradictions: Why does Scar let Debbie live after she tries to help Ethan and Martin? Why is she reluctant to go with them, then later desperately wants to go? And finally, why does Ethan spare her life when he’s been talking of killing her for months?

Even ignoring these inconsistencies, the whole rescue seems anti-climatic after all the romantic squabbling in the middle of the film.

But then they bring her home and Ford delivers another of his perfectly staged, brilliantly shot homecomings, filming from inside the house through the open door as everyone comes inside except Ethan. Wayne grasps his right arm with his left hand (the signature of Ford’s first star Harry Carey) and then turns and walks away into the Valley as the door closes. It’s the kind of ending that makes you think, “Wow, what a great film” and forget about the disastrous plotting and staging of the previous hour And even during it’s worst stretches, there are moving moments like when Brad’s mother concludes a debate on the state of the West: “Someday this country’s going to be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.” It might be the best line in the screenplay by Frank S. Nugent.

I can’t agree with my friend that it’s a bad film, but it’s not a great one either. If only for Wayne’s complex, intense performance and the stunning scenery, this is a film you want to be better than it turns out to be. But it has way too many flaws.

How can I explain its high critical standing after all these years? As I’ve found with many “classic” comedies, if you start out strong and end with a bang---which Ford does here as well as he ever did---problems in the middle are simply forgotten.

Like many things in life, old movies are often better left to our memories than the cold, hard reality revisiting them finds. Yet when you re-watch a film that looks and sounds as fresh as it did originally (see “Reds” below), it makes up for the disappointments.

From 1978 to 1987, Warner Bros. cranked out four “Superman” movies starring Christopher Reeves, each one more repetitive and less satisfying than the previous.

But in today’s Hollywood, that’s ancient history. Might as well be from the silent era. Thus, we get “Superman Returns,” a clunky special effects extravaganza featuring characters and dialogue so simplistic that it makes “Superman IV” The Quest for Peace” (1987) look like a lost Shakespeare play.

Paying homage, I guess, to Reeves, the new Clark Kent, Brandon Routh gives a stiff, wooden performance in the duel role, failing miserably to express the inner angst that the superhero experiences when he returns to find Lois Lane spoken for and Lex Luthor still being a bad boy.

Bryan Singer, once a promising filmmaker who made the deliciously entertaining “The Usual Suspects” (1995), found his niche as a interpreter of comic book legends with the box office success of two “X-Men” movies. He brings the same nothing to “Superman Returns” that any studio hack could have, other than Kevin Spacey, who became a star in “Usual Suspects,” as a scene-chewing, unconvincing Luthor.

The first hour or so of the film is a hodge-podge of plotlines that cancel each other out until it gets down to Luther’s plan to create a giant island off the Atlantic coast that will submerge much of the United States. You ask why? Lex asks why not?

Sadly, Superman seems to have more chemistry with Lex than with Lois, who, as portrayed by Kate Bosworth, is more unappealing than ever. She’s boorish and bossy and totally self absorbed, until, of course, the emotional climax when she becomes loyal and heroic. Bosworth is hopeless in this role, lacking the gravitas to be Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist or even a responsible adult. Never once did I believe she was a mother or a reporter or someone even the pitiful nerd Clark Kent would look twice at.

When the highlight of a 160-minute movie about Superman is a minute-long video of Marlon Brando reprising his role from the previous films as the superhero’s father, it’s pretty clear that someone should have called in the rewrite man.

TOMMY (1975)

     I’ve waxed on and on about the richness of the films of the 1970s, but there’s a downside to the era also. From all reports, drugs played an integral part of Hollywood during those years and, judging from the results, was a mostly positive ingredient. Mostly. After watching the film adaptation of the Who’s landmark rock opera for the first time in 20 some years, I’m convinced that everyone involved in this production was so high they had no idea what they were doing.

It’s an embarrassing, incoherent and pointless attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Who’s music, led by the inexplicable decision to cast the band’s lead singer, Roger Daltrey, as the title character. Daltrey is wide-eyed and vacant as the deaf, dumb and blind Tommy who turns (or is turned) into a religious-like figure for the benefit of his self-indulgent mother (Ann-Margret) and evil stepfather (Oliver Reed). If Daltrey wasn’t stoned during the production, then there’s no excuse for his inability to look believable while singing the songs he made famous.

Eccentric director Ken Russell---who, for all his fame, made just one superb picture, “Women in Love” (1971)---brought in pop-rock stars Elton John, Eric Clapton (both looking like they don’t know where they are), Tina Turner and legendary crooner Jack Nicholson, to redo some of the better songs in the score, but the results are lifeless, except for Turner’s version of “The Acid Queen,” the only time the film does justice to Pete Townshend’s sweeping music.

“Tommy” has its moments of psychedelic weirdness that in a movie with real characters and a plot that made sense would have worked, but here every scene looks like it was created in a rush of coke- or alcohol- induced exuberance and then tossed into the chaotic mix.

Ann-Margret, always the trooper, plays her role like she’s in a Bob Hope Christmas special---up for anything and playing to the last row; while Reed, who was superb for Russell in “Women in Love,” acts and sings like he arrived on set each morning from an all-night London pub crawl.

I’m not sure a good movie could be made of “Tommy” but this carny-like collection of strangeness, accompanied by the most inept singing in the history of movie musicals, is a disaster of epic proportions.

ZODIAC (2007)
Unsolved murders usually don’t translate into successful movies, but director David Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt turn what could have been a straightforward melodrama of the type so popular on television into a case study how three men are affected by their obsession with solving the crime.

This long, meticulous film chronicles the Zodiac killer’s rampage in the late 1960s and early ‘70s in Northern California, made famous by the brazen letters he sent to and were printed by newspapers, some of them in code. This deeply disturbed man was never brought to justice, but it certainly wasn’t for the lack of effort by San Francisco police detective David Toschi (superbly portrayed by Mark Ruffalo), and two San Francisco Chronicle staffers, police reporter Paul Avery (a flamboyant Robert Downey Jr., in one of his best performances) and staff cartoonist Robert Graysmith (a wide-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal), whose books on the Zodiac killer the screenplay is based. Fincher, best known for the hypnotic thriller (his feature debut) “Seven” (1995), deftly shifts the focus between Toschi, Avery and Graysmith as the investigation methodically moves through the years from suspect to suspect and from dead-end leads to viable evidence.

By the second half of the film, Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith emerges as the central figure, after Toschi is taken off the case and Avery drifts into a drug-addled stupor. Graysmith should be the most interesting because, unlike the other two, it wasn’t his job to become fascinated with the Zodiac. And when he’s supporting the reporter and the cop, Graysmith is a great character, but when he takes over the film, he feels like a shallow caricature of obsession. The script never tries to explain what caused this seemingly smart man to discard his family in pursuit of the Zodiac.

Ruffalo finally gives the kind of commanding yet subtle performance he seemed destined for after his breakthrough role in “You Can Count on Me” (2000) while Downey, showy and a bit over the top (what a surprise), has some brilliant moments and creates a man very much of his time.

Fincher and his craftsmen’s greatest accomplishments are the spot-on replications of the look and sounds and attitudes of the era. With only casting changes, this could easily be mistaken for a mid-‘70s Sidney Lumet police film. And that’s a pretty good thing to replicate.

REDS (1981)
No one has represented the allure of Hollywood and the appeal of celebrity---both on and off the screen---over the last 35 years or so better than Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. Since the 1960s, these two enduring stars have found the perfect balance of artistic integrity and very public personal lives, surviving the ups and downs of American moral standards by just being themselves and doing good work.

Astonishingly, these two rebellious, rule-breaking actor-filmmakers are turning 70 this spring. Beatty became a septuagenarian on March 30 and Nicholson hits the mark on April 22. (There must have been something in the water in 1937: Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave and Morgan Freeman were among the actors born that year.)

For anyone who fell in love with the movies in the 1970s, it’s simply mind boggling that wild-man Jack and playboy Warren, poster boys for that hedonistic, uncensored era are well into their Social Security years.

Nicholson, needless to say, is the more important figure of the two. He’s not only the greatest actor of his generation, but he’s become the live-action logo for Hollywood celebrity, always in the front row whether he’s at a Lakers’ game or the Oscars. And Nicholson isn’t some legend resting on his numerous laurels; he remains at the top of his game, delivering, in the last five years, a moving performance in “About Schmidt” (2002), an underrated comic-romantic turn in “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003) and maybe his most brutal, ruthless character of his career in “The Departed” (2006).

Beatty became a movie star 10 years before Nicholson and has given some impressive performances, but his importance in Hollywood is as a pioneering actor-filmmaker. After spending the early 1960s as Los Angeles’ most eligible bachelor, his career turned into something else when he produced and starred in the landmark film “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967). Overnight, he went from pretty boy to major Hollywood player.

Since then he’s been in just 14 films, but that includes three of the best pictures of our time: “Shampoo” (1972), in which he starred, produced and co-wrote; “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1973), which he produced for director Robert Altman and starred in; and “Reds” (1981), his finest work as actor, director, writer and producer. Since then he’s also given a couple of amazing performances, as mobster Bugsy Siegel in “Bugsy” (1990) and as a suicidal, outrageous senator in “Bulworth” (1998), which he also directed.

“Reds,” re-released as a newly minted 25th anniversary DVD last year, stands up not only as a tour de force for Beatty, but one of the best acted, written and directed epics ever filmed. I loved this inventive mixture of screwball romantic comedy and sweeping biography of American socialist writer-activist Jack Reed when I first saw it in 1981. A quarter century later, it’s more impressive; an intellectual exploration into political issues from the early part of the 20th Century, featuring an advocate of communism as the leading character, wouldn’t have a chance to get made today. Even in 1981, it was only because Beatty was coming off the box-office hit “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) that Paramount gave him the freedom to do this extravagant, complex movie.

When Beatty approached Nicholson about playing the young, romantic playwright Eugene O’Neill, who was part of the group of Provincetown, Mass., intellectuals, circa 1917-1920, which included Jack Reed, he was reluctant. “I told him I can act anything but I can’t act thin,” says Nicholson in the interview segment on the “Reds” DVD, referring to the photos of the gaunt O’Neill on the cover of his plays. Nicholson also says he was unconvinced that Beatty should both star and direct until he saw the raw footage of the witness interviews.

It is the interviews with these survivors from the era, many who knew Reed and his companion Louise Bryant, that open the film and then are injected throughout, that separates “Reds” from most historical pictures and allows Beatty and his co-writer Trevor Griffiths, to avoid the clunky, exposition dialogue that drags down most historical dramas. These witnesses---including writers Henry Miller, Adela Rogers St. Johns, Will Durant, Rebecca West, entertainer George Jessel and many who were members of the early socialist movement in the U.S.---help explain the big picture while the personal stories are being played out on the screen; the fight to keep America out of World War I, the growth of organized labor and the involvement of Reed in the Bolsheviks revolution in Russia. These senior citizens, beautifully filmed against a black background, are consistently amusing and insightful, even as they struggle to recall what have become faint memories.

It’s easy to forget that despite the presence of Beatty, Nicholson and superb supporting performances by Maureen Stapleton, Edward Herrmann, Paul Sorvino, Gene Hackman and novelist Jerzy Kosinski, the dominate performance in “Reds” is delivered by Diane Keaton. As Bryant, an independent writer-photographer from Portland who leaves her husband to join Reed in New York, Keaton shows off her well-honed skills as a spunky romantic figure and an intense, explosive dramatic actress. In portraying Bryant’s conflicted feelings about Reed during their on-again, off-again relationship and exploring the tenuous balance of career goals and devotion to her man, she’s represents the struggle of American women throughout the century. It’s the most ambitious and complex performance of her great career.

Some of the most intense scenes in the film are those between Keaton’s Bryant and Nicholson’s O’Neill, who falls for her immediately and, in Reed’s absence, carries on an affair with her. Nicholson is at his steely, sarcastic best as he challenges Bryant about her and Jack’s unconventional relationship and focuses on one of the film’s central themes: passionate, but objective artists vs. passionate, political activists.

Nicholson represents the artist side of the quandary, but Reed himself plays both roles, primary being a journalist covering a story, but easily slipping into the activist role as the socialist movement grows stronger. After writing “Ten Days That Shook the World” about the workers’ revolution in Russia, he returns to Russia as a representative of American socialists and becomes embroiled in the country’s political quagmire. It’s not a stretch to see Beatty, a longtime political activist, whose candidacy for public office has been rumored for years, struggling with the same dilemma as Reed.

Beyond Beatty’s nearly flawless direction, Vittorio Storaro’s rich, evocative cinematography and the incredible production design by Richard Sylbert (in over a dozen different locales around the globe and replicating both Greenwich Village and Provincetown in England), “Reds” remains a compelling motion picture because it manages to be entertaining in the most conventional, Hollywood way at the same time that it’s filled with long, fascinating discussions of labor, political and social issues now 90 years old.

“It was very much motivated by my own political activism at that time…what I thought was a mistake in American paranoia about communism and most particularly Vietnam. So finally I thought, if I don’t do this it won’t be done,” Beatty says of his motivations. “The thing that stands out to me is the doing of it.”

I doubt Beatty will make or even appear in another film---his last acting role was in the long-delayed and nearly unwatchable “Town & Country (2001)---instead content to enjoy his life with Annette Bening and his four children and rake in the career achievement trophies. But isn’t 70 the new 50? Certainly Nicholson thinks so, as he continues to be one of the most interesting actors in movies, embracing the aging process and the new type of roles it brings.

Maybe an old-guys buddy movie could pair these longtime friends together on screen again? Of course it’d be terrible, but who cares, it’s Jack and Warren.

Most of British filmmaker Ken Loach’s films chronicle the struggles of England’s working poor and how 25 years of anti-labor policies have exacerbated their plight. His latest steps back in time to examine those same working poor, this time in Ireland, as they battled against occupying British troops to take back their country.

This passionate, heartbreaking picture follows the Irish independence movement in the 1920s as experienced by a young medical student, Damien (Cillian Murphy), who passes up his opportunity to attend university after witnessing the brutality of the English troops. Along with his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) and a handful of other local men, they do their part in what resulted in a treaty that ended the occupation, but began the century-long troubles.

Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty have been assailed in the British press for what many see as a one-sided view of the Irish-English conflict and certainly the film offers little sympathy for the bullying, fascist-like British military. Yet the most interesting aspect of the film is the conflicts that arise between the Irish themselves, when they find that defeating the British means making difficult choices and compromising one’s principles.

What Loach has always done so well in his domestic dramas---“Hidden Agenda” (1990), “Ladybird, Ladybird” (1994), “My Name Is Joe” (1998), “A Fond Kiss” (2004)---is mix compelling characters with complex, emotional debates on social, political and moral issues. That formula has never worked better than in “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” a title taken from an Irish poem, as the combatants are forever debating the cost of independence and the risks of compromise.

The film, which won the 2006 Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival (the top prize), doesn’t offer much hope and isn’t very persuasive that the “victory” was worth the sacrifices, but Loach isn’t interested in telling a feel-good Hollywood story. The brutality of life, whether at the end of a rifle or the end of an unemployment line, needs to be examined with a clear eye and a fearless heart.

While telling the very same story as 2005’s “Capote,” this film spends more time with Truman Capote’s celebrity friends, does a better job of bringing out the writer’s sarcastic sense of humor and paints a more intimate relationship between Capote and killer Perry Smith. Yet “Infamous,” based on a book by George Plimpton, ends up being the lesser of the two films, in part because it tries to do too much.

Toby Jones, a British actor who physically resembles the author, has the unenviable task of following Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Capote. Jones does more of an imitation than Hoffman but still creates a three-dimension character, exploring the writer’s many contradictions. There’s a funny, telling scene in which Capote wins over the locals of Holcomb, Kansas, where he’s come to write about the brutal murder of a farm family, when he casually mentions a shawl given to him by Jennifer Jones. The chief of police (Jeff Daniels), his wife and their neighbors are stunned as this strange little person (many in town had assumed he was a woman) tells of his encounters with Bogey, “Betty” Bacall and John Huston while on the set of “Beat the Devil,” a film he scripted. From then on, everyone in town wants to have him over for dinner.

Dishing out the New York gossip are Sigourney Weaver, playing the glamorous wife of CBS chief William Paley, along with Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini and a wonderfully amusing Peter Bogdanovich as book editor Bennett Cerf. Near the end of the film, these sophisticates show Capote how to do the latest dance craze, the Twist. It’s classic.

Less effective is Sandra Bullock, as a drab, depressing Harper Lee, Capote’s childhood friend and confidante who accompanies him to Kansas.

The new James Bond, Daniel Craig, is excellent as Perry Smith, the complex, artistically inclined murderer who falls in love with Capote. But the intensity of their relationship, not to mention the two murders’ slow march to the gallows, puts a strain on the light-hearted mood of most of the picture.

Filmmaker Douglas McGrath, who wrote and directed a superb adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” (1996) and co-wrote Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994), also slows down the story with short takes of the characters speaking directly into the camera, as if they’re being interviewed, about their dealings with Capote. It adds nothing of interest to the film.

They don’t make bad movies like they used to. Big budgets, special effects and actors way too serious for anyone’s good have made most modern actioners unsuitable for any moviegoer old enough to drink. This “historical” drama stars Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Ernest Borgnine---clearly it was a major release---in a story about Viking raids on the British coast and the return of the rightful heir to the British crown.

It begins admirably (after a prologue regally recited by Orson Welles) with the Viking, portrayed as heroes of the film, raping and pillaging a British village. Soon afterward, Curtis, playing a Viking slave, sicks his falcon on Douglas and the bird rips out Douglas’ eye. After a short period of wearing an eye patch, Douglas proudly displays his scared, blind eye.

As the Vikings drink and fight and plot against the British, it’s unclear who is having more fun, Borgnine, as the Viking ruler and Douglas’ father (despite being a year younger, in real life, than Kirk), or Douglas, who strides around looking for scenery to chew. Curtis plays the sincere hero who is determined to save/marry Leigh, a kidnapped British princess, and, at the time, his real-life wife. Douglas, as always a devilish rogue, just wants to have his way with her.

The film is grand fun from start to finish; Borgnine and Douglas die gruesome but honorable deaths, the weaselly Brits are brought to their knees and everyone goes off to Valhalla.

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